Singapore climber missing on Mount Everest: Why is the journey to the summit so dangerous?

At least 10 climbers have lost their lives so far in this climbing season on Mount Everest and at least two, including a Singaporean, have been reported missing.

Amanda Lee

Amanda Lee

The Straits Times


Singaporean climber Shrinivas Sainis told his wife he would not be able to make it down Mount Everest on May 19. PHOTOS: AFP, CHANGE.ORG

May 23, 2023

It has been an exceptionally grim week for those attempting to scale the world’s highest peak.

At least 10 climbers have lost their lives so far in this climbing season on Mount Everest and at least two, including a Singaporean, have been reported missing.

News of the 10th fatality came on Sunday when expedition organiser Asian Trekking said that Australian climber Jason Bernard Kennison, 40, died on Everest.

On average, five climbers die during every spring climbing season on Everest, according to AFP.

Nepal’s tourism department has issued 478 permits to foreign climbers in 2023. Since most climbers need a guide, more than 900 people – a record – are expected to try to summit during the season, which runs until early June.

Here’s why Everest is attractive to climbers, even though it is fraught with danger.

Where is Everest and how high is it?
Mount Everest is situated between Tibet and Nepal. With a peak of 8,849m, the mountain is the highest in the Himalayas and is considered the highest point on earth.

It spans 2,400km, running across six countries in Asia. Scientists estimate that the mountain is between 50 million and 60 million years old, according to National Geographic.

In 1953, New Zealander mountaineer Edmund Hillary and his Tibetan guide Tenzing Norgay made history when they became the first climbers ever recorded to reach the summit.

When do climbers usually ascend the summit?
Most climbers climb Everest from the Nepal side. They would take a short flight from the Nepali capital Kathmandu to Lukla. From there, they would trek about 10 days to Everest Base Camp, at 5,334m.

Spring is considered the prime season to climb Everest, with most making the attempt in May due to the weather conditions.

The ‘death zone’
Those who climb above 8,000m on Everest are considered to have entered the “death zone”, where low oxygen levels and thin air make conditions very challenging.

Most climbers are not used to the high altitude and low oxygen levels, so they rely on the bottled oxygen they bring along. Climbers can develop altitude sickness and brain swelling if they spend long periods in the “death zone”.

Oxygen deprivation at the summit

Mount Everest stands at a height of 8,849m, and climbers going up the mountain face increasing risk of brain swelling, frostbite and other high-altitude ailments. PHOTO: REUTERS

The summit of Everest has about one-third of the air pressure that exists at sea level. This means that a climber’s ability to breathe in enough oxygen is significantly reduced at the summit. Scientists have determined that the human body is not capable of remaining indefinitely above 5,791m, according to National Geographic.

As climbers ascend the mountain, their oxygen intake is reduced. This makes their bodies increasingly at risk for conditions such as brain swelling. The chances of climbers having frostbite also increase as their heart has to work harder to pump blood around the body to deliver oxygen.

Climbers can develop high-altitude pulmonary edema (Hape), which produces excess fluid in the body’s lungs, causing breathlessness or fatigue.

They can also experience high-altitude cerebral edema (Hace), a severe type of high-altitude illness that could prove fatal. When struck by Hace, the brain will fill up with fluid. The illness can lead to a loss of coordination, and climbers may be unable to understand their surroundings. In some cases, they experience hallucinations.

Overcrowding on Everest

Mountaineers have warned of the dangers of overcrowding, as many climbers trying to reach the summit have led to congestion in the past.

In recent years, expeditions to Everest have become more popular, resulting in more crowds.

In May 2019, a photo showing a “traffic jam” of climbers ascending Everest’s summit went viral. The photo, which was captured by Nepali mountaineer Nirmal Purja, showed a long line of hundreds of climbers bottlenecked on the summit ridge of the mountain.

In 2019, a massive queue on the mountain forced climbers to wait for hours in freezing temperatures, lowering depleted oxygen levels. At least four of 11 deaths that year were blamed on overcrowding.

Ms Andrea Ursina Zimmerman, an expedition guide who reached Everest’s peak in 2016, was quoted in a BBC article in 2019 as saying that many “traffic jams” are caused by unprepared climbers who “do not have the physical condition” for the journey.

Nepal has so far issued 478 permits for Everest to foreign climbers this season, with each paying an US$11,000 (S$14,800) fee.

In April, the number stood at 454 permits. At the time, Mr Bigyan Koirala, an official at the Nepal Department of Tourism, told AFP that it had issued the highest number of permits to summit Everest and said the numbers could increase.

The current figure beats the record in 2021, when Nepal handed out 409 permits.

Close to 450 climbers have already climbed Everest this season, according to Nepal’s tourism department.

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